October 26, 2012 / Sexism

New York Senate Debate: The Fifty Shades of Grey Question


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

In the middle of the New York Senate debate between Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican challenger Wendy Long, the moderators announced there would be a lightning round. I liked the idea of a quick section of questions where the candidates give yes or no answers to a variety of questions. It worked well when they were asked if public money should be used to fund PBS, if the candidates had ever taken part in a political protest, and whether or not they write their own tweets.

The lightning round took a strange turn, however, when moderator Liz Benjamin asked something unexpected, “Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?” Both candidates answered “no,” over uncomfortable laughter, and Benjamin added a quick, “me neither, for the record,” before moving on to the next question.

I am sure I was not the only person who was shocked to hear this question. New York has two women running for the Senate, and the candidates have one political debate before the election. How does this question make the cut? After the debate, Benjamin explained to ABC News,

“That book is a cultural phenomenon, got a lot of attention, a lot of eyeballs. So it seemed a pretty apropos question related to current events. Also, with all the attention on women this cycle, and two women candidates and a woman moderator, it worked.”

I disagree strongly with Liz Benjamin. It did not work. There are many cultural phenomenons that have no place in a serious political debate, and this is certainly one of them.

It was a sexist question. The fact that it was asked by a woman moderator does not change that fact.

A male candidate would not have been asked about an erotica book that is often described as “mommy porn” during a serious, senate debate. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a debate during which a male candidate was questioned about his personal erotic reading choices.

When we have female candidates running for office, they should not have to deal with this kind of flagrant sexism. Especially from a woman moderator. This is not the kind of attention women want to see during a political cycle.

It was a distraction during a debate that should have remained focused on the serious issues that voters find important.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

  • Bes

    The only thing media people can think of relative to women is sex. The women who exist in media world share that world view or they would not be kept around by the men who run media. Media images of women are a real problem in this society.

  • Cindy

    Agreed. Nobody asks male candidates if they read Playboy. I’m so disgusted with the blatant sexism I’m seeing everywhere during this election cycle. Ugh.

  • HeroesGetMade

    While I agree about the inappropriateness of asking such a question of female candidates, the question is a litmus test of sorts. Their answers were also very refreshing – it’s good to know that women running for high office have the good sense not to get sucked into the whole Fifty Shades enterprise of getting women to accept abuse as love. An excellent deconstruction of this enterprise:

  • Bes

    I work with some college aged Girls and am also the Mother of some college aged kids. They have all read Shades of Grey because it is a cultural phenomenon. That doesn’t mean they have a positive view of it. In fact they were laughing at the really bad writing. Just because a topic is trending doesn’t mean all the attention it gets is positive.

    I am tired of all issues and questions directed toward women voters and candidates being sexually related.

  • Tina

    It just doesn’t stop. You can’t make this stuff up!


    Are they really suggesting voting for Obama is like losing your virginity? Will there be a version for boys as well? I am speechless.

  • Seriously? Are they kidding? Unreal.

  • Bes

    With the election over I would like to say that it is my hope that some of the “women’s organizations” get active in educating young women voters about their reproductive rights under state law so they are not vulnerable to the manipulation by political parties which happens every four years and can participate in future elections as complete citizens not as a bunch of “lady parts”. Also perhaps young women who need reproductive rights can take a lesson from the gay rights orgs about effective political participation and put up ballot issues in the states which provide reproductive rights to women state by state. Stand up young women and do it yourselves!

  • ryan

    another four years!

  • Bes

    Right now NPR is having a discussion on what Republicans need to do to win elections. The only people discussing are liberal men. It is clear that Corporate Media is setting up the next political topic and that will be “what do the political parties need to do for minority Hispanic voters”. This is your chance women, We are the majority voters and it is time both parties think about what they can do for women citizens and voters.

    Since we are going to have expensive government mandated health care it not reasonable for either party to expect women to be paying for a policy that excludes the only health care many young women need, birth control. If women’s groups don’t stand up now and shove their way into the conversation in both parties you will not be heard. Neither party is going to ask you what you think or what you need and the Dems will forget you until they pull out their abortion dog whistle four years from now and start their appeals to you as a bunch of “lady parts” (that term is just so quaint!). You need to educate yourself about state mandated reproductive rights and you need to put out legislation just like the gay marriage people do on a yearly basis unless you like getting played for a bunch of “lady parts”.

  • Bes

    Ryan, this is supposed to be a pro woman blog, not a Democrat talking points blog. Could you take your Obama boosterism some place appropriate. I am shocked but I think the owners of this blog did a very good job of not selling women out to the Democrats during this election and that is a good sign for pro woman organization.

  • ryan

    I see that you misunderstood my exclamation point for support which is often the case for people too quick to label other people that you don’t agree with. Your labels represent one of the problems for women politically; that being women, like yourself, labeling other people including women. My position is one of fascination not support. I think that you are so angry at democrats that you may judge people too quickly without at least offering the possibility of being wrong.

    As a non-minority and non-woman it is hard for me to totally understand the suffering of either group. But I am quite amazed at the political luck of this politician at this particular time in history. that’s all I was saying in that one sentence. Apologies that it wasn’t clear when i wrote it.

  • Bes

    Actually I was responding to the fact that you wrote a political comment that had nothing to do with a pro woman issue on a blog that is supposed to be pro woman. I don’t really consider the Presidential election relevant to women’s issues, both parties use women and toss them aside. You might have noticed I am not one to be a stickler for spelling or punctuation.

  • ryan

    pro-woman? or pro-republican woman? for you, based on your writings, I believe it’s the latter choice.